William Simon argues, among many other things, that sexuality—that “inconstant universal”—is conducted at an angle: it is never just sex. Indeed, as he says in his preface, “all discourses of sexuality are inherently discourses about something else; sexuality rather than serving as a constant thread that unifies the totality of human experience, is the ultimate dependent variable, requiring explanation more often than it provides explanation”. Sexuality for humans never just is: it has no reality sui generis, and a concern with it always brings wider social and psychic issues in their wake. Human sexualities have to be socially produced (no human can ever just do it), socially organized, socially maintained and socially transformed. And, as cultures change, so do sexualities. The most recent changes have been brought about alongside feminism, postmodernism, multiculturalism and globalization and mean that new sexual meanings are everywhere in the making. This underpins much of what Simon argues in this important book. Understanding sexualities may indeed help us make sense of many wider things.
The radical import of Simon’s view—developed over the last thirty years with his colleague John Gagnon—has only just begun to be recognised (and often as if it constituted a new and original view). William Simon and John Gagnon were the founders of what has now become commonly known as the “social constructionist” approach to sexuality. Both worked at the Kinsey Institute for Sexual Behaviour in the 1960s, collecting and unearthing mounds of empirical data. And yet in the midst of this, both felt the need to theorize—to take the data out of the simple realm of the biological, the ‘natural’ and the merely factual— that most obvious and commonsensical view of sex and sex research available— and to place it squarely in the realms of the social, the symbolic and the theoretical. Starting in 1966, a highly fruitful partnership emerged which produced over 30 articles and linked books which culminated in their pathbreaking study Sexual Conduct in 1973.1 Partially drawing on the work of the literary critic Kenneth Burke for whom symbolism was so central; partially drawing upon their Chicago-based training in symbolic interactionism and especially the dramaturgical metaphors of Erving Goffman; partially just being sociologists who recognized the social when they saw it; they argued that sex, far from being natural, was located well within the realms of the social and the
symbolic. Parting intellectual company in the mid-1970s, it would be fair to say that Gagnon’s work took a more Durkheimian and research-oriented direction while Simon’s became more influenced by neo-Freudianism—a turn that infuses many chapters of this book.
Theoretically, there is an undeniable coincidence of drift between those theories of sexuality developed in the past 30 years by Simon and Gagnon and now called constructionist, the general theoretical stance of symbolic interactionism, the philosophical position of pragmatism and the tottering towards a kind of social thought and social world which has been called postmodernism. They are not synonymous, but there is an affinity. All deny the essentialist world of foundational truth—of nature, of psychology, of history; all deny any ‘strong truth’ (some deny all truth) and seek pluralities and multiplicities; all highlight the role of language and symbols, signs and signifiers. For the pragmatist, there has been a hundred-year war on Foundational truth and Grand theory alongside a concern with “plural universes”, an avoidance of essentialists and “totalizers”, dualists and “splitters”. In the interactionist version, there has long been a concern with the plurality of truths, the ambiguity of meaning, the struggle of a social self in the dialectics of “I and Me”, the ceaseless flux, the localized context and the deconstructed, decentered life in story telling. And in the more general constructionist account of sexuality, an “extremely outrageous idea” has been proposed: that “one of the last remaining outposts of the ‘natural’ in our thinking was fluid and changeable, the product of human action and history rather than the invariant result of the body, biology or an innate sex drive”.2 Pragmatism, interactionism, constructionism and postmodernism, then, all throw into doubt Grand Narratives of Sexuality.
Simon challenges us to think theoretically about sexualities in a way that few contemporary writers do. It is a supreme irony that most writing about sexuality is not about sexuality at all but about many other things—gender, power, discourse, identity; and yet, while Simon claims that “sexual desire is always inherently something else” (Chapter 6), he is one of the few writers to enter the world of the theoretical with sex on his mind. This is first and foremost a contribution to social theory that takes the sexual more seriously than most.
Two themes of Simon’s constructionist account shine through this book. The first is the power of symbolism in sexualities—every page drips with the significance of language, symbol and metaphor as constitutive of human sexualities. The second theme is the apocalyptic social change that has slowly been descending upon us. As Simon says, we now increasingly live our lives in ways that are “different from any that humanity has previously known”. This is the postmodern (or postparadigmatic) age. It is characterized by an intense pluralization, individuation and a multiplicity of choices that were simply unknown in any other era. Rapid social change has become our normal condition.
At the heart of Simon’s theory is the recognition that sexuality for humans is profoundly not like that of other animals. It is social and symbolic through and through: nothing can be grasped without recognizing this symbolic nature. There is here a de-essentializing and de-naturalizing thrust, and Simon recognizes everywhere that sexuality is massively prone to contingent context and metaphorical muddle. Human beings have devised a myriad of metaphors to talk about, think about, write about and perform human sexualities. Sexual life thus gets framed as the machine that pumps or the disease that plagues us, as the beast within or the spiritual force without; as a biological drive, as an evolutionary force, as a tool of repression, as a liberatory act, as joyful lust, as romantic longing, as violence and hate, as natural or unnatural. Sex is, among many other things, an achievement, an act, an aggression, a boredom, a body, a chase, a commodity, a form of filth, an expression of love, a feeling, a game, a gender, a hormone, an identity, a hunt, a hobby, a medical problem, a microdot, a pathology, a play, a performance, a perversion, a possession, a script, a scarred experience, a therapy, a mode of transgression, a form of violence, a form of work, a kind of war.
In the western world, the list of metaphors for sexuality is enormous and they may each have their contextual moment. Sometimes only one of these metaphors is at work, and at other times they are blended into a massive contradictory web. The narratives of our sexuality feed directly from and into these wider frames of metaphorical miasma. Yet, though our sexual lives are locked in an extensive metaphorical world, most of it has become so tired, so repeated, so “dead” that we can no longer see them as in any way metaphorical: they have “become” our sex. For instance, what does it mean to say that “sex is natural!” or “sex is dirty” or even “the male sex”? Is there an essence hanging around the word “sex” that intrinsically implies this? Is sex really natural, really dirty or really male? Or have these terms— natural, dirty, male—captured the term so pervasively that we can no longer grasp their symbolic and invented character? The postmodern serves as a challenge to the tired habitualization of old metaphors.
The biological metaphor is perhaps the tiredest yet most pervasive and powerful, and it is certainly Simon’s major target of critique in this book. It will not endear him to common sense or mainstream sexology. However, much writing on human sexuality is couched in metaphors derived from biology and medicine. Thus, the languages of both biology and essence converge on a unitary view of the goals of sexuality: sex is driven for the reproduction of the species. From this flows a key idea: an ideal form of sexuality as heterosexual coitus in which the male must be sufficiently aroused to penetrate and the female sufficiently receptive to the man and capable of at least bearing the child—and usually raising it too. Key images follow: images of heterosexuality, coital sex, male arousal, female nurturance, motherhood, procreation, children—images which certainly seem to have informed much of western thinking, no less in the past than in the present. Some writers have referred to this as compulsory heterosexuality.3 And the relevance of these metaphors is not surprising, as they get enormous support from “science” and “sexology”—another of Simon’s objects of critique. Most of our contemporary understanding of sex comes from the work of biologists, medics and sexologists who, by virtue of their scientific training,
have no difficulty in finding everything of significance about sex to be located within the “natural” worlds of hormones, brain structures, drives and instincts. From the writings of the earliest social Darwinians to the contemporary sociobiologists; from research on hormones to research on sex differences in the brain; from theories of aggression to theories of male bonding—most writers who have claimed the authority of science have been concerned with laying out the biological foundations.
Now what is distinctive about Simon’s work is his wish to supplant these biologically grounded metaphors with socially grounded ones. The metaphor of script is his favorite and it emerges many times in this book. Appropriately for someone so influenced by the work of Burke and Goffman, scripting theory suggests that human sexualities are best seen as drama. An elaborate set of stagecraft rules and performance guides engulf our sexualities and bring them into passion. There is no simple rubbing of ticks here, no simple unmediated orgasmic release: sexuality for humans must have life breathed into it through drama. Often this leads to “slow changing, rule bound genre” (Chapter 2). Fixed formulae for drama make life and sexuality easier. But there is always room too for improvised performance. While human sexuality may have a goal of reproduction, it is not the only goal and tells us really very little about the role of sexuality in human affairs. How often does sex result in procreation? The very question poses a challenge—the widening of metaphors of the sexual. There is nothing simple about its definition. As this book makes abundantly clear, it is multiple, fragmented, diffuse, split and contested. And it is becoming more and more so.
For Simon, psychoanalytic writing is an important aid in deciphering the symbolism of sex. (Kohut seems a major influence.) And it is everywhere to be found in this book. But Simon is no simple follower or canonical believer. Rather, his task is more “to engage with it deconstructively” (Chapter 3). He merges his interactionist concerns with recognition that psychoanalysis handles desire and symbolism better than any extant theory to date; it has a profound importance in grasping the intrapsychic script and the representational world. Yet it is often hopelessly time-bound and muddled. Intrapsychic life has to be seen as socially contingent. And there is a clear reversal of Freud at many points: the sexual does not shape the social, rather the sexual is put to social and psychic use. More for Simon is the critical period of sexual development childhood: rather the moments of most salience occur in adolescence. And yet “latency” often occurs in childhood. The linearity of chronological age in Freud breaks down, just as it has in the wider social world. There is a “blurring of the boundaries” (cf. Chapter 2).
There is an interesting emphasis in this book on adolescence and the emergence of the symbolic at this time. The suggestion is that landscapes of desire or cultural scenarios of sexual scribing have a prime focus in adolescence; most of our images of sex are derived from the young not the old, and this itself creates tensions—for the old of course, but for the young as they grow. Simon’s
concern with adolescence stems from a concern with how desires become eroticized, a task which is centrally performed during the long and troublesome periods of youth. Hence three chapters of this book, no less, turn to this period of life. They can be read as a deconstruction of Freud, but they can also be read as providing signs of an opening internal dialogue which helps slowly to construct an eroticized self of the adolescence—one that is currently forged out of the contingent circumstances of choice, pluralism and complexity. Cultural scenarios provide the contexts for the building of psychic scripts that ultimately link to sexual habits and the creation of a sexual self. The youth market may also be breaking down the traditional distinctions between youth and childhood so that children enter these erotic scenarios increasingly earlier. There can, in these changing times, no longer be any simple model of psychosexual development that holds for all or most. Complexity, difference and contingency are the hallmarks of the modern development. (Families, for instance, now exist in many more different forms and create earlier settings that provide many more different pathways into sexualities, and so too do communities and the wider culture which are undergoing radical transformations.) The construction of the self is highlighted, then, through contexts of complexity, pluralism and choice and the question of how sexuality acquires its significance in youth is posed. For Simon, the motivations for sex are “rarely, if ever, in the exclusive control of ‘sexual desire’” (Chapter 4). “Social puberty” becomes important rather than biological maturation.
If symbolism and metaphor is one theme underpinning this book, change is the other. For Simon, the modern world has seen change speeding up and increasingly impacting more and more lives: it has entered a postparadigmatic phase where consensual meanings have dissolved into pluralism, authority has been weakened, “choices” have proliferated, time and space have become reordered and the natural has been deconstructed and denaturalized. Modernity brought in its wake the seeds of its own destruction—“To Make It New”. Processes were put into play which recognized differences, relativities, changes: potential chaos yet enormous possibility. With this came the radical options for new sexualities divorced from traditional religions, traditional family structures, traditional communities, traditional politics, traditional limited and restricted communication channels. Here, a space emerges for new kinds of sexualities. The new “postmodernist culture”, so widely discussed, is the latest stage of modernity: accelerated, expanded, extended.
The postmodern has been endlessly described. The most famous definition comes from Baudrillard, for whom it is:
the characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions
possible. It is a game of definitions which matters…. It has all been done.
The extreme limit of. possibilities has been reached. It has destroyed
itself. It has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are pieces.
All that remains to be done is play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces —that is postmodern.4
For Giddens, late modernity (a term I prefer) is a time when we have become increasingly cut off from local social relations and become “disembedded”; a period of increasing “risk” for all society’s members, largely because all the old verities have ceased to be; and a time of growing self reflexivity, when the very knowledge produced in the world helps shape the emergence of that world.5 For others it is “the time of the sign”. A time when media images, modes of information, “regimes of signification” and the “aestheticization of everyday life” have become the engulfing feature of modern experience; we live in through the media which become experiences in themselves. For others, it is the time of consumer cultures,6 and for others still, it is the time of a new hypertechnology.7
It is a time when the Grand Narratives have come to an end; a period of fragmentation, differentiation, indeterminacies, immances, de-structurings, deunification, de-centering. The quest for the grand truth, the scientific solution, the correct political position, the linear progression and the theoretical purity are now all seen as flawed. Indeed, such pursuits have been used in the past as a means of coercion and tyranny; the need now is to recognize the fragments, the bits, the pastiches, the movements to and fro, the immanent divisions, ubiquitous and fluctual. I use the term “late modern” to describe all this.
And all of this must impact out sexualities. It is no longer the source of a truth as it was for the moderns with their strong belief in science. Instead, human sexualities become destabilized, decentered and de-essentialized; the sexual life is no longer seen as harboring an essential unitary core locatable within a clear framework (like the nuclear family) with an essential truth waiting to be discovered: there are only fragments. It is, as Simon says, “accompanied by the problematic at every stage” (Chapter 1). Sexualities are likely to become more and more
• self-conscious and reflective: the very terms we use to discuss sexuality will become more discussed, elaborated upon, contexted;
• different in form from telephone sex to music video erotica, from virtual sex to internet sex cafes;
• differentiated and variable: a plurality of meanings, acts, identities will emerge;
• more recursive, or dependent upon borrowings from the mass media and, indeed, from social science;8
• indeterminate: a supermarket of sexual possibilities pervades;
• pastiched: thus, sexual identities blur and change.9 In the most extreme versions of this story, we move beyond human beings (“The Death of the
Subject”) and identities (the word “postidentitarian” has already been invented).10 The “Human Being” vanishes altogether from the story;
• excessive: hyperbolic madness starts to invade sexuality. The Krokers, for instance, talk about “panic sex” and “excremental sex”.11
Simon’s study is about the postmodern, and he raises many important insights as to where our sexualities may be heading in the twenty-first century His postmodernism is evidenced not just in what he says but in the way that he says it. Boldly he “abandons any pretence at linear coherence” in his writing, and suggests that his readers (i. e. you) “read selectively” anyway So not only can the various chapters be read in any order, not only is there significant repetition, not only are there chapters which seem strangely out of place—the one on Who Killed Liberty Vallance? is a fascinating oddity—but by the final chapter, what we are treated to is a new mode of writing: epigrammatic non-linear, pastiched. The reader may be advised to dip into this chapter selectively—there is a thought here for each day!
There is, then, no closure of any kind to this book. Simon’s project is to open theoretical spaces to examine the sexual as it is socially constituted, and along the way he discusses many important topics. Homosexuality assumes an important role. It signposts the problematizing of desire and “has become a presence in the everyday order of things’ (Chapter 1). Masturbation is accorded a more significant role than usual in nearly every chapter. Paedophila emerges as an issue which has made “adult child” sex more plausible than before, hence raising greater fears. Sadomasochism becomes a key script of late twentieth – century desire. The nature of the self and identity changing is everywhere. And so on. This is an important book which deserves to be savored in its reading and influential in its impact.
1 See John Gagnon and William Simon, Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (1973), Aldine.
2 See Carole S. Vance, “Social Constructionism” in D. Altman et al. (eds) Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality (1989), Gay Men’s Press: 13.
3 See Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (eds) Desire, The Politics of Sexuality (1983), Virago: 212-40.
4 Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (1989), Polity Press: 116.
5 Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), Polity Press.
6 Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernity (1991), Sage.
7 See Allucquere Rosanne Stone, The War of Desireand Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995), MIT Press.
8 See Ken Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (1995), Routledge.
9 This is part of a wider story now well documented in social sciences; of The Protean Self, The Mutable Self, The Homeless Mind, The Narcissistic Personality; the Saturated Self. Here, identities in the late modern world are no longer stable or fixed. This literature is now enormous, and hugely recursive; it often features among the best-selling non-fiction. See, for example, Ken Gergen, The Saturated Self (1991), Basic Books.
10 See Douglas Kellner, “Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities” in Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (eds) Modernity and Identity (1992), Blackwell: 173.
11 See “Panic Penis”, in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Panic Encyclopaedia (1989), MacMillan: 181.
Professor of Sociology, University of Essex